The Truth of the Resurrection

 

“Jesus Christ hast overcome death and opened unto us the gate of everlasting life.” [Collect]
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This portion of today’s opening collect [prayer] pretty much says it all about the Gospel message. Jesus’ Resurrection from the dead is the defining moment of the NT. Every word of the Resurrection accounts is critical to the Christian message. As a noted scholar [N.T.Wright the former Bishop of Durham, England] has pointed out, one might excise a paragraph or two of the Christmas story and still get the full picture. But not with Easter. Many today do not believe the Christian message exactly because some have tried to excise critical elements of the narrative. I hope you might take this message with you to encourage others in their belief.
We heard all last week of Jesus’ death and his Passion, his love for us. Yet, many today question whether he really died, if he really was buried, or really came back from the dead. After all, the Gospels never mention him having reappeared to Caiaphas or the rest of the Sanhedrin as we would expect!!
Scholars have put together many theories in the last Century or so which have led to doubts in many people: from Jesus being rescued from the Cross, to people going to the wrong tomb to look for his body, to Jesus being resuscitated by special herbs just in the nick of time, to name just a few. Yet, the Gospels along with the benefit of science, namely archeology, have made such disputes hogwash, as Bishop Wright has made quite clear with two other noted scholars in their book a few years back, Jesus, the Final Days.
To those who put forward that Jesus might have been rescued from the cross one has to bear in mind that Jesus was hated by very powerful people. The Sanhedrin would have made very certain that this pain in their neck was good and dead and that no soft hearted Jew might affect a rescue at the last minute with swords or bribes. Further, the Romans had as their standard operating procedure the practice of keeping armed guards around crucifixion criminals for the exact reason of making certain that nobody could get near them and rescue them. And, I do not think one needs reminding that Roman soldiers generally were not considered wimps either.
Some have advanced that Jesus fooled folks and had been not quite dead up on the cross so that he could be stolen away on the way to the tomb and resuscitated in secret. This ignores enormous sufferings that Jesus did receive along with the massive infection which certainly would have resulted from his Passion and Crucifixion.
Further, if say Joseph of Arimathea had wanted to get control of Jesus’ not quite dead body without any Temple or Roman guards personally escorting it to the tomb, one has to consider how long Jesus would need to hang on the cross after faking his own death. Joseph actually would have had first to leave Calvary Hill, then walk through packed Jerusalem to the other side of town, then wait to gain entry to the governor, then plead with him, then get a permission slip written, then hurry back through crowded Jerusalem again and then up Calvary one more time to give the guards the message before anyone would even think of taking Jesus down early. And, we might note the added requirement that any such grand scheme needed Jesus not to make even a whimper during that gruesome extraction which would have led to the permission slip being quickly torn up in Joseph’s face.
Similarly, some have argued that Jesus was resuscitated from a coma in the tomb by followers with special herbs just in the nick of time. Yet, one has to get past many problems here as well, such as, first there being such herbs available, secondly that his followers had obtained them successfully, and thirdly that the rescuers managed to GET to the tomb in the nick of time, and fourth they also were willing to violate their Sabbath by walking so far and violate it even further by working on not just any Sabbath, but a “high sabbath”. (We might remember that doing more than mere bandaging of a cut, such as even pouring on oil was considered work violative of Sabbath rules which Jesus ran afoul of many times.) Finally, there also would be the itsy problem of rescuers needing either to outfight or bribe armed soldiers employed and placed by there by people who so hated the man inside the tomb. (The Green Berets had not yet been established.)
Some scholars also have advocated that Jesus body might have been stolen since most tombs then did NOT have doors. Yet, it needs to be remembered that Joseph’s …DID. It was one of the minority that did and of an even smaller minority that used a large, several hundred pound, round stone placed in a trough to make opening and closing slightly easier. Additionally, one must keep in mind that besides the presence of an atypical heavy stone door to the tomb, the tomb also had been ordered sealed by the authorities over their precise fear that Jesus’ body would in fact BE stolen by his followers. And finally again, to top it all off, Pilate had allowed the Sanhedrin to use their own guards employed by the Temple itself to safeguard it.
Some scholars have pointed out that Jesus would never even have been placed in a tomb, (thus making it easy for his body to disappear during the night) because Crucifixion victims were not allowed to be buried. Now this was standard Roman policy in the Empire. And it was followed in fact in a major way when Jerusalem fell in 70ad. The Romans crucified many of its remaining inhabitants, and did not allow them to be buried.
Yet this argument first ignores the discovery in 1968 of another Jew whom carbon dating shows was crucified also during Pilate’s tenure. His bones, complete with a nail in the foot were found in an ossuary, a jar, used in family burial vaults to keep permanently the bones of all family dead forever. Such bones were collected from the tomb on the one year anniversary of a death during which time Mother Nature had taken care of all the messy details. Obviously if Jewish crucifixion victims were not buried, but left to the birds and animals, then this man’s family would have had no bones to collect.
Secondly, it needs to be remembered that when Jerusalem fell Rome was at war with it. Rome’s policies with conquered peoples during peace were far more lenient allowing local customs and traditions to continue and flourish so long as no one complained too much about Rome itself. Indeed, it should be recalled that the noted Roman historian Josephus wrote in the late first Century that while crucifixion victims typically were not buried, Rome specifically allowed this custom for Jews in Palestine.
Lastly, Jewish religious custom needs to be kept in mind also surrounding Jesus burial. Burying the dead was a sacred duty to all Jews. They even made sure to bury all their enemies’ dead after a battle to make certain that the land was not defiled. This point is made beautifully in the Apocryphal book of Tobit. One of Tobit’s most common activities is burying the dead, even nonJews.
Burial involved more than just digging a hole and tossing in a body, at least where the deceased was Jewish. Specific rites, rituals, and prayers always were mandated. A Jewish criminal who had been executed would not be buried with honor, but would still be buried in a proper Jewish ceremony and manner. Mourning for such a person would have been restricted, for example, to only immediate family and sometimes some very intimate friends. But mourning would have been allowed nonetheless. And, after the requisite year in the tomb, the remains, the bones, even of a notorious criminal who had been executed for his crimes was allowed by Jewish custom to be collected and placed, if desired, in the family crypt in the place of highest honor.
Among the many rules applicable to burials we see several on display in the case of Jesus. Jesus was taken down from the cross on the same day as his death, completely in keeping with Jewish law going all the way back to the Book of Deuteronomy. Further, since the Sanhedrin was responsible for Jesus having lost his life, as opposed to someone who died in an accident or of old age, they themselves were responsible under their priestly laws to make certain that he was buried. This is very much in keeping with the actions of Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the Sanhedrin who went to Pilate to ask for the body and then laid it in his own personal tomb.
The absence of any mention in the Gospels that Joseph pointed out the tomb to any of Jesus’ disciples has fueled further speculation that on Easter morning the women simply went to the wrong tomb. Those who advance this have made the, I believe ridiculous, argument that the angel’s comment in Mark 16 (which our Prayer Book provides for additional Easter day Eucharists) to the women at the tomb that: “he is not here; he is risen” really means “Jesus is not in here, but is higher up in the cemetery”. Besides wondering whom the ladies saw, it seems quite silly to think that Mary Magdalen and the other ladies would set out at the crack of dawn with expensive ointments to anoint the decomposing body of Jesus and pondering how to roll the stone away if they did not already know in the first place that Jesus was in an unusual tomb with a stone that would need to be rolled away!
So, Jesus very much did die, and did very much get buried in a stone tomb with a door. Besides giving believers retorts with which finally to respond to doubters what does it mean to us? Well, without the next item, the Easter resurrection, it means nothing, just that another violent death occurred once two thousand years ago. It is the resurrection which completes the story.
Sadly, some scholars and even some clerics today also question the bodily resurrection. As with miracles which science can not explain, Jesus’ resurrection just makes some intelligent people uncomfortable, that believing such might encourage things like falling on ones knees or snake handling.
Nonetheless, the evidence of a supernatural event is impossible to ignore. Not only was the guarded, sealed, tomb with the heavy stone door found empty early in the morning when no Jews could have undertaken the labor any earlier than Mary did (for fear of laboring while still on the Sabbath), but the clothing was found, and also found not torn, but also actually folded such as the head napkin, and further in separate places within the tomb. (One might note that the Jewish custom at dinner was to crumple the napkin when one was done, but fold it if one was leaving the table only momentarily and planning to return to finish.)
Thus, the description of the tomb’s appearance looks as if the body simply evaporated. This is a conclusion, I have mentioned once before on Good Friday, affirmed with a cry by an atheist colleague of a doctor who in the 1940s examined the Shroud of Turin. It was their conclusion that the lack of smudging on the body means the veil never was peeled off. All this again was in Dr. Pierre Barbet’s 1950 report and book thoroughly examining the Shroud of Turin, A Doctor at Calvary. One might remember that it is the image of evaporation is what Mel Gibson himself used in The Passion of the Christ which borrowed from this book extensively.
Further, it defies logic and common experience to believe that Jewish disciples of Jesus would first have violated the Sabbath to work in the wee hours and then, having found the body of a just executed, highly despised criminal would be so tidy and dainty about leaving the tomb “just so”. Further, it should be recalled, as we will hear again in upcoming Gospels that the disciples themselves, not least of whom Thomas, did not themselves believe that Jesus ever would be seen again.
Jesus’ resurrection is important because we are not celebrating a resuscitation. There is nothing major for us today to celebrate in that. A Jesus merely resuscitated is one that does not call for our praise, honor, and worship. A resuscitated Jesus means his disciples and countless martyrs wasted their lives when they could have, after enduring a bit of embarrassment and ribbing over their youthful zeal and excitedness, gone back… to their wives and families, and the quiet life of fishing.
No, instead we celebrate a, and the first, resurrection. While Jesus came back to life just days after his own human death, our own resurrections will occur at the end of time. For Resurrection does not actually describe life after death, but rather life after… life after death. At that time our souls will be will be reunited with our bodies, our perfected bodies.
Jesus’ resurrection, the shout that Jesus is risen from the dead, announces the dawn of the New Covenant. Believers will be able to reach Eden again, the new heaven, the new paradise where the door never again will be closed by the cherubim with a flaming sword.
This last point answers the final nagging question I noted at the outset. So why did Jesus not come back, stick out his tongue, and take a bow in front of the Sanhedrin, like I know I would have? Despite the High Priest’s pledge which we heard on Good Friday that they all would believe if he hopped down from the cross, it is safe to say that they would not have believed even after that additional miracle by him. Their minds were closed. They were right and nothing else mattered. Having ears they could not hear and having eyes they could not see.
More importantly though, there is a reason that the Gospels recount Jesus only appearing in the flesh to his disciples after his resurrection, and never to others. The high priest Caiaphas himself would not have recognized Jesus, and thus would not have believed he was back. We might recall that even Jesus’ own disciples had difficulty recognizing him, such as the women in the cemetery, Thomas, or the two on the road to Emmaus. Yet in them Jesus had a seed of faith. A seed he himself had planted. A seed which tears from his Passion had watered. Seeds ready to bud forth at the daylight of the Resurrection.
Jesus, the Second person of the Trinity, after his earthly death and miraculous Resurrection was a being of heaven once again. And heaven and all is glory, and that that therein is, really is only available, and thus only really visible, …to believers. Amen, and a very Happy and Blessed Easter to one and all. +

Cowboy 10 Commandments